The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride

The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride

by Daniel James Brown


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From the #1 bestselling author of The Boys in the Boat comes an unforgettable epic of family, tragedy, and survival on the American frontier

“An ideal pairing of talent and material.… Engrossing.… A deft and ambitious storyteller.” — Mary Roach, New York Times Book Review

In April of 1846, twenty-one-year-old Sarah Graves, intent on a better future, set out west from Illinois with her new husband, her parents, and eight siblings. Seven months later, after joining a party of pioneers led by George Donner, they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains as the first heavy snows of the season closed the pass ahead of them. In early December, starving and desperate, Sarah and fourteen others set out for California on snowshoes, and, over the next thirty-two days, endured almost unfathomable hardships and horrors.

In this gripping narrative, New York Times bestselling author Daniel James Brown sheds new light on one of the most legendary events in American history. Following every painful footstep of Sarah’s journey with the Donner Party, Brown produces a tale both spellbinding and richly informative.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780061348112
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/22/2015
Series: P.S. Series
Pages: 337
Sales rank: 38,288
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Daniel James Brown is the author of The Boys in the Boat and Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894. He lives in the country east of Redmond, Washington, with his wife and two daughters.

Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Prologue 1

Part 1 A Sprightly Boy and a Romping Girl 7

Chapter 1 Home and Heart 9

Chapter 2 Mud and Merchandise 25

Chapter 3 Grass 45

Part 2 The Barren Earth 59

Chapter 4 Dust 61

Chapter 5 Deception 76

Chapter 6 Salt, Sage, and Blood 93

Part 3 The Meager by the Meager Were Devoured 117

Chapter 7 Cold Calculations 119

Chapter 8 Desperation 140

Chapter 9 Christmas Feasts 159

Chapter 10 The Heart on the Mountain 176

Chapter 11 Madness 189

Chapter 12 Hope and Despair 204

Chapter 13 Heroes and Scoundrels 222

Part 4 In the Reproof of Chance 243

Chapter 14 Shattered Souls 245

Chapter 15 Golden Hills, Black Oaks 256

Chapter 16 Peace 264

Chapter 17 In the Years Beyond 267

Epilogue 274

Appendix: The Donner Party Encampments 289

Acknowledgments 293

Chapter Notes 295

Sources 325

What People are Saying About This

Irvin Molotsky

“A compelling retelling of the ghastly events surrounding the Donner party. Daniel James Brown, using one survivor’s experience as his focus, moves beyond the cardboard figures depicted in previous accounts and shows how the lucky few endured and survived.”

Nina Burleigh

“In this gripping narrative, Brown reveals the extremes of endurance that underlie the history of this nation, and more than that, of humanity in any part of the world, even today, surviving great peril in search of a better life.”

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The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 89 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It has been years since I have found a book that I literally could not pull myself away from. This is it! Daniel James Brown is a gifted author who obviously spent a great deal of time researching not only the Donner Party, but countless other aspects of American life in the mid-1800's, even going so far as to physically re-trace the steps of these courageous pioneers when current weather conditions concurred with those they had endured on their 2000-mile trek to a new life in little-known California. Brown uses, and completely notates, numerous resources to substantiate his historical documentations and uses modern-day forensics and science to bring this tragic story to life. The contents of this book will stay with you as you meet its characters, who Brown transforms from vague names in an American History textbook to real-life families, neighbors, people you might have known in 1846.
BanbaOir More than 1 year ago
I picked this book up expecting little by way of originality given the topic, but upon a friend's recommendation, gave it a chance. This book was a bit slow at first, but pulled me in with every turn of a page, and in the end, I cried for what happened to the lives it brought to life, for despite the span of decades, the emotions shared are, in the end, shared by all of us and easy to feel when written as well as this book has been...well worth reading, even for the high school crowd,...this will forever maintain a place of honour in my library.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As did others, I learned about the Donner Party in History classes. Yet, how many of us truly knew the soul-searching and gut wrenching decision these people faced, all in an effort for survival? I venture to say not many of us. Perhaps, it's because merely the mention of "cannibalism" is enough to shut down further thinking. Brown takes an interesting tact to further illuminate the struggles for mere survival the members of the Donner Party faced - Brown has the reader "walk" in the shoes of one of the members, a young gal married days before heading West with her parents and siblings. This, alone, puts a human face to this tragedy. To gain a new perspective and respect for these pioneers, I highly recommend this book, one that does not read like a History lesson. Then, put yourself in the shoes of any of one of the Party's members: What decision would you make merely to survive?
TexasReaderTX More than 1 year ago
Much misinformation is unfortunately available about what has come to be known as "The Donner Party." Daniel Brown has done considerable research on what happened to it in 1946-7. If you have time to read only one book on the subject, read this one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There are so many books available on the Donner Party disaster of 1846/1847. If you read only one, this should be it! The Donner Party epic could be a very gruesome and depressing read but the author, Daniel James Brown tempers the gore that one should expect when reading about the Donner Party and fills that void with fact, medical knowledge, and psychological analysis. The reader will feel the cold, feel the pain, and experience the anguish of one Sarah Graves as she struggles to survive. Unlike other books, this book continues with the survivors life story even after the rescue. Five Stars is not enough of a rating for this incredible story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is definitely the most indepth and well researched story about the Donner party. He takes you, via the story and his travels to the places that the party traveled and gives you an insight into the lives of the travelers before their journey started and how they lived out the remainder of their lives. Good story and definitely worth reading.
KayKayNH More than 1 year ago
I remembered little from school history lessons about the Donner Party other than "caught in the mountains" and "cannibilism". This was a very good history of what came to be known as the Donner Party crossing; a very harrowing account, and gives much food for thought. This was a "perfect storm" of events that transpired to create a human tragedy that really could have happened to anyone in that situation. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Indifferent Stars is a riveting account of the limits to which human endurance can be pushed. To anyone who has ever heard tales of tehe Donner party or who thinks they have reached the breaking point it is a must read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not a lover of non-fiction, but this is impossible to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Would never have read a story about the Donner Party, but I like the author. Was not disapppointed. Really enjoy this "other Dan Brown"; he has a nice way with words, does his research, and puts thing in perspective. Loved "The Boys in the Boat"; glad I bought this one too.
tjward on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride" is, of course, about the terrible fate that befell some members of the Donner Party - half of them died before they got to California and some of them were indeed eaten by other members of their wagon train. However, the book is an excellent reflection on man's arrogance in the face of nature. The leaders of the Donner Party were sure they could push on to California even though it was late in the year, they had very little food left and they didn't really know how to get where they were going. The hardships were just unbelievable and the folks who did make it, in several cases, died before their time from the extreme deprivations they suffered. "The Indifference Stars Above..." is very good reading.
karenthecroccy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Of course the subject matter was compelling -- who wouldn't want to read about a disastrous tale of settlers losing their way over the Sierra Nevada? I had learned a bit about the Donner-Reed party over the years, but had never read a historical account of the people who attempted the trip to California. I was obviously excited to receive this book as an early reviewer.Daniel James Brown certainly did his homework; his research was thorough. However, I had to resist the urge to get out the red pen and knock off paragraph after paragraph of details that weren't plot moving devices. The intricate details in places contrasted hugely with areas where it seemed Brown didn't have as much information: namely, his main character, Sarah Graves. What made him choose this person to drive the story? I understand that she was a distant relative, but the fact didn't make the narration any different, in my opinion. Perhaps the fact that she was a new bride allowed him to bring up more of the "trivia" (or so it seemed) about birth control and whatnot.On the other hand, I could appreciate the finer details of the story if presented in a manner that blends well with the story. I like to know the hows and whys of history. There were times where I felt as though the author's opinion interrupted the flow of the storyline. While I appreciated his dedication to the story, I didn't really need to know about his trek across the salt flats. The denouement left me wanting the same amount of details that were given throughout the rest of the historical account. The book fell flat and didn't feel complete. If Brown was going to show us all the reasons, I wanted to know more about the long lasting effects of their trials over the mountains. Kudos to Brown for a well researched history!I was disappointed that the ARC of this book did not include the photograph inserts that the hardcover edition had. I did seek them out when I was recently in a bookstore.
debherter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had hoped this book would have a more driving narrative to it. Unfortunately, it moves so slowly that I felt like I was walking beside a covered wagon for miles while reading it. The author attempts to bring a different point of view to the story by focusing on two women (girls) who were a part of the group, but he fails at this, sometimes making the book seem too much like some warped version of his own autobiography, and at other times losing the main characters for large portions of the narrative. To be fair, I will confess that after several tries I was not able to finish the book, so it may have a redeeming ending, but I couldn't slog through the muddy story-telling to get there.
mhleigh on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1846, Sarah Graves¿ life is full of promise. She is newly married and traveling with her large family to a better life, the bountiful land of California. Their party gets a start late in the season, however, and then are tragically convinced by a self-serving scoundrel to take a ¿proven short cut¿ over the mountains which promises to shave miles off their distance. This fateful choice leads the Graves family to be part of the Donner party, whose story is well known in the story of American westward expansion. The author recounts the story of the Donner party while focusing specifically on the ordeal of the twenty-one year old woman, while also giving the reader significant historical, medical, and psychological background information relating to trial, starvation, and trauma.I have read books about the Donner party before and was happy to see that this work avoids some of the pitfalls of other books. The author does not sensationalize the party, and generally does not broach the more shocking experiences of the party until the individuals involved themselves reach the point of no return. Additionally, Sarah Graves is a person often more or less overlooked in the party, as evidenced by the fact that while other Donner Party survivors were fairly infamous in their local communities, Sarah goes largely unnoticed as part of the expedition. Even though the work is written as non fiction, it largely has the flow and voice of a novel, making it a fairly quick read. My only complaint is that the author has a penchant for getting off track and providing the reader with tangents. Although this comes from the place of wanting to give his audience a fuller appreciation of the time period or events, many of the off shoots only serve to interrupt and distract from the story. For instance, while it is an interesting tidbit to learn that a castrated male lives an average of 13.6 years longer than an ¿intact¿ male, this does not add anything to the story of Sarah or the Donners. The book contains some chapter notes, and more of these ¿helpful¿ facts should also be relegated to this status.
MissMermaid118 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
History that reads like a novel. The story of the Donner Party is one that everyone seems to have heard but that few really know anything about. Today the only thing anyone really is aware of is the horrifying lengths members of the group went to in order to survive. What people don't realize is that the majority of the Donner Party were women and children; that they were completely exhausted and without provisions well before they became snowbound; and that there were numerous attempts to escape the snowbound mountains as well as rescue parties sent from California. I found this book to be absolutely riviting. Yes, it was sometimes difficult to read about this ordeal. On the other hand, it was inspiring to know read about their determination to live and to know that many did survive. Absolutely one of the best books I've read and very highly recommended.
cbell on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Indifferent Stars Above is a well-researched and fresh telling of the famously disastrous Donner Party. With coverage of the full journey from Midwest through to California, the travelers' mistakes are slow building, but apparent. If you can look past the periodic present-day asides--perhaps of interest to the author alone--the story is fully compelling and presented with emotion, but not sensationalism. The book remains surprisingly suspenseful throughout and a solidly engaging read.
hippypaul on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have read several accounts of the trials of the Donner Party. I did not fully understand the event, however, until I finished this work. Mr. Brown gives a detailed account of the events of the journey without dwelling on the horror in which most works find their focus. Instead he provides an understanding of what it was like to be a person alive in that time at that place.Starting by outlining the cycles of malaria that lashed Illinois and the great depression of 1837 when 343 of the nation¿s 850 banks went under. He shows the pressures that drove people to decide to leave for Oregon and California. It was ironic to learn that these early pioneers of our history were sneaking across an international border and ¿thus became California¿s original illegal immigrants.¿While not dwelling on the central event of the tragedy he clearly outlines the effects that hunger will have on the human body and draws on the latest information on PTSD to explain the aftereffects and outcomes of many of the survivors. He dips into meteorological history and science to examine the question had the party had been foolish or the victims of a very harsh winter.Throughout the book, even while he brings in data from the full spread of science he never loses track of the people involved and especially of Sarah Graves who had made that decision to travel west to find a better life. This is an excellent book that will take you ever step of the way with the young lady.A copy of this book was provided free by the publisher for the purposes of this review.
Ann_Louise on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's a bit strange to say you "enjoyed" a book that so vividly describes the plight of the Donner Party, but it's true in this case. TISA gives the reader a "you are there" feel in describing what the trek West was like, and the physical hardships the travellers endured. It's very much like "The Children's Blizzard" in describing the conditions and also resembles "A Night to Remember" in keeping me reading to find out what happens to the various "characters" - plus a bit of "Alive" for some of the nitty-gritty on cannibalism.
soubrette on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book (an Early Reviewer ARC). Like everyone else in the US, I learned about the Donner Party in school, but the lessons were mostly along the lines of "eww, they ate people. Don't do that." I finally feel like I understand what happened to the Party and why. The story is heartbreaking and haunted me for some time after I finished the book. I can barely grasp just how tough the pioneers really were. Sadly, I can grasp how venal some of the other characters in the story were.Mr. Brown keeps the action flowing throughout the book. It's a quick read b/c it's so interesting. A section at the end, where the author retraces some of the route of the Donner Party is less interesting but contains some beautiful writing and is worth reading for that alone. Also interesting is a section that details what happened to the surviving members of the Donner Party.The book itself is well-written, interesting, and fast-paced. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in adventure stories, history, and the like.
Fourpawz2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have long been fascinated by the Donner tragedy which played out in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in 1846 and I was eager to read Daniel James Brown¿s The Indifferent Stars Above. This book lived up to my hopes for it and then some. I read Ordeal By Hunger a few years ago and I consider it a good and full account of what happened there at Truckee Lake, but The Indifferent Stars Above brought so much more to the table. The author writes in particular about the story of Sarah Graves Fosdick, a 21 year old bride at the time she left Illinois with her new husband, her parents, brothers and sisters. However he does not limit himself to Sarah¿s tale and fully relates the stories of the other unfortunates who became stranded in the mountains with her.Beyond the stories of bad choices, horrendous weather, starvation, death, disease, cannibalism and heroic rescue, Brown¿s decision to travel the entire route ¿ from Illinois to California ¿ in order to more fully experience the land that Sarah traveled across, was a good one. I could really see the country he wrote about ¿ the birds and animals, wildflowers, salt flats, steep mountains, boulders and rivers. And the snow and the cold. How any of these people could survive such conditions is amazing to me. For me, Brown brought the people, the places and the time to life. He also discusses the effect upon the mind and the body of a variety of things such as, hypothermia, hyperthermia, starvation and the shock of the horrendous things suffered by the company to good effect. And once more I realize how very different we modern-day folks are from these people. How whiney and weak we seem by comparison. I do not know anyone who would consider, for one moment, doing what these people did ¿ giving up their homes, marching off into the wilderness with everything they owned in a wagon, risking everything, including their lives and the lives of their families, for a new life in a place about which they knew virtually nothing. It¿s crazy. And it¿s amazing.Highly recommended.
lpmejia on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Donner Party incident has, over the century and a half since it was first publicized, become a part of the shared American history mythos. Unfortunately, it has also suffered from its notoriety ¿ reduced to a sad tale at best and a punch line at worst. Like most people, I knew almost nothing of the tragedy itself when I picked up this book. I only knew the barest of facts ¿ a group of wagon trainers caught in the high Sierra Nevada Mountains during brutal winter conditions who resorted to cannibalism to survive. As with all well-known historical episodes, however, there was, and is, much more to the story.Instead of trying to focus on as many party members as possible, Daniel James Brown instead centers his narrative of the tragedy around one survivor, newlywed Sarah Graves Fosdick, who was only 21 when she set out with her husband and family on the journey. Through Sarah¿s eyes, Brown is able to then illuminate the other victims much as another human being would, instead of relegating them to a catalogue of facts.The best history books transform their subjects from unknowable objects into what history truly is about ¿ real people who dealt with monumental circumstances. Brown¿s writing is superb, not only for having achieved this goal but for the way he brings us into what it meant to be alive in 1846. His research encompasses not only the Donner Party itself, but the social and economic forces which spurred the great American migration westward, along with practical and relevant knowledge about everyday life in the middle of the nineteenth century. All of these factors played a part in the choices these people made, and how those choices ultimately spelled their doom.Daniel James Brown has written a seminal work on the history of the Donner Party incident. Anyone interested in this tragic, wholly American story would do well to read it.
SpongeBobFishpants on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Well, I could not possibly have been more excited to receive this book! Having lived within just a few miles of the cabins I developed an intense interest in the history of the Donner-Reed Party when I was younger. I drove past it every day but never really thought about it until one day, out of desperation for something to read while waiting for my laundry to finish, I picked up a copy of [Ordeal By Hunger] at the local grocery store. That was 20 years ago now and I am still just as fascinated. Over the years there has been a variety of myths and legends surrounding what happened, some started by the survivors themselves and some originated or perpetuated by writers like Stewart and McGlashan, I hoped that Brown would take a more modern approach to his research and make an attempt to weed some of those inconsistencies and more dramatic add-ons from the story and he did so in fine style. Because the truth is, inevitably, so much more interesting. While this doesn't go into research in the depth that I would have liked, being a fan of those dry scientific papers that others seem so loathe to read, it is still far more informative than I expected and full of additional information culled from various perspectives such as PTSD, the effects of starvation, grief, poor diet, interpersonal conflict and hygiene. In addition the author addresses how, by necessity, many of the decisions of emigrants of that time period were based on nothing more than educated guesses. Forced to make decisions without any kind of true cartography, confronted with conflicting opinions, information presented as truth when in reality it was often nothing more than speculation and overly optimistic descriptions, it is amazing that many more emigrants didn't suffer similar fates. Having made the drive myself many, many times from Reno to Truckee up the same canyon that the Donners were forced to travel by wagon with no roads, it is simply a mystery to me how they did it. This is without question one of the better books written on this story. That the author accomplished this with such compassion and attention to detail makes this book a welcome addition to my Donner library.
suballa on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a such a great story about the Donner tragedy. There have always been questions surrounding the events that happened during that journey and many are answered here with the help of our new understanding of the physical and psychological effects of trauma. One question that I often wondered was why the members of the Donner party suffered from starvation so quickly when in our recent past there have been protesters on hunger strikes that lasted weeks longer than the Donner party members' deprivation of food. What effect did being on the brink of death for so long have on the survivors? Why did the single men in the party fare so much worse than the families, even the young children? We know so much more than we did then, and the author has done extensive research to find the answers to these and many more questions. This is by no means a dry history of the events, but an engaging and fast paced story of these innocent people looking for a better life who became the victims of a few selfish and greedy men.
dchaikin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An LT Early Reviewer Book.I think this book book might have made me sick. I'm not sure, and really it wasn't that gruesome - I mean despite that cannibalism part. But, I did go a few days with an upset stomach, and I got better right after I finished the book. Really.What it did do was create a pioneer experience. It's 1846, on brink of the Mexican-American war manipulated by James K. Polk, when newly married Sarah Graves Fosdick leaves Illinois with the Graves family, including about 8 younger siblings, to travel over the plains, through South Pass and then over the Sierra Nevada into California. We follow her, or at least the various groups she travels with, all the way to the bitter end. Did I mention this was an experience? This is a popular history that can fully brings us in. I felt I was able to really get a sense of how crazy these pioneers were, what they were up against, how young they were, how stubborn and resilient plowing through endless problems. The Donner Party gets extra-credit for their fateful mistake of following the "Hasting's Cut-off," a "short cut" that lead them across the Wasatch mountains where they literary had to cut the trees down to pass through, and then on to a walk across the salt plains without water for days. It cost them a full month, a delay which lead directly to their disturbing iconic fate. Brown uses a large bags of tricks to make this book work, one of which is simply some exceptional nonfiction writing. He also brings in a various interesting ideas and facts on things like the causes of the anomalous weather that winter, the psychology associated with hypothermia/hunger/ etc. I would say the tricks kind of come apart at the end, after the drama has passed, where Brown doesn't quite manage to bring the story to a close...IMHO. But, by that point he had already fully captured my attention, and I'll forgive him and give it a full five stars.Highly recommended to anyone curious about the plains or the early history of the American West. Gently recommended to about everyone else, because while I don't think anyone needs to know so much detail about the the Donner story, it's fun to learn it.
parelle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have a distinct soft spot for "popular" histories, ones intended for a general rather than a popular audience. But when a book tiptoes the line between history and biography, I do like to know more about the person who's supposedly at the center of the book than the general historical setting around it. Frankly, reading this, I found that I'd much rather read about Sarah's sister Mary than Sarah herself - she left very little written information behind her, clearly, and her sister seemed more engaging. Choosing Sarah seemed to be as an excuse to talk about the 1840's attitudes towards 'X', whatever that happened to be (particularly marriage and contraception). I also didn't quite enjoy the author's tendency to run off on a tangent whenever it presented itself - a short bit on 20th century funeral customs? It was a bit distracting to be 'pulled' out of the period like that. But still, a reasonably good book and read.